Wednesday

8th Jul 2020

Italy slammed by court over forced return of migrants to Libya

  • Strasbourg court rules against Italy's decision to send migrants back to Libya (Photo: nobordernetwork)

The European Court of Human Rights on Thursday (23 February) ruled that Italy’s decision to send fleeing refugees and African migrants crossing the Mediterranean back to Libya was a violation of fundamental human rights.

“Returning migrants to Libya without examining their case exposed them to a risk of ill-treatment and amounted to collective expulsion,” said the Strasbourg court.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

The ruling could have widespread implications for EU member states on how they handle and treat every intercepted individual seeking asylum outside their territory said the Italian Council of Refugees, which brought the lawsuit against Italy.

The perilous 620km journey across the sea to Italy’s Lampedusa island by refugees and migrants last year saw 1,500 lives lost as boats overturned and sunk. The more fragile succumbed to dehydration and exposure.

Others, in their attempt to reach salvation in a Europe they thought would be welcoming, were instead faced with an Italian military instructed by Rome to send them back to Tripoli.

In May 2009, the Italians forced the return of 200 people, including 11 Somalian and 13 Eritrean nationals who then took their case to Strasbourg and upon whom Thursday’s verdict is based.

The Italian coastguard picked them up some 50km south of Lampedusa and transferred them to Italian military vessels. All 200 were led to believe they were heading to Italy but were then handed over to Libyan authorities upon landing in Tripoli.

Italy argued in its defence that Libya was a “safe country” and that the migrants picked up by its vessels had never expressed any clear desire to seek refuge in Italy.

“They were in the water for 23 hours so its ridiculous to pretend that they should have to ask for asylum while onboard. They were in a bad state,” Antoni Giulio Lana, an attorney representing the victims, told this website by phone from Rome.

The bilateral agreement between Italy and Libya to return migrants to Libya remains intact since it was first introduced in February 2009. Italy’s former Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, from the anti-immigrant Lega Nord party, said at the time the agreement was instrumental in the fight against “illegal immigration” and that it discourages human trafficking.

"The European Court took a wrong decision. I'm absolutely sure that everything was done respecting European laws. Those provisions saved many human lives that would have been put at risk during the trips attempting to reach Italy," Maroni told Italian press on Thursday.

The new court ruling could see Prime Minister Mario Monti’s technocrat government to review the agreement penned by former prime minister Berlusconi, said Lana. The agreement was temporarily suspended in February last year following the Libyan uprising.

In Tripoli, fourteen of the 200 defendants had been granted refugee status by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) between June and October 2009. But Colonel Gadhafi, Libya's former leader, kicked out the UNHCR in 2010. This was followed by reports that the country’s remaining refugees hid themselves away in deplorable conditions and suffered widespread abuse. Many, including those granted refugee status by the UNHCR, feared the Libyans would mistake them for Gadhafi’s mercenaries.

Italy also suspected some of the passengers were potentially dangerous and allegedly planted by Colonel Gadhafi in retaliation for Rome’s decision to allow NATO to launch strikes from its territory. “We can’t be sure there are no terrorists on board,” said Maroni in March.

The UNHCR believes more than 1,000 migrants, including pregnant women and children, were intercepted and forcibly returned to Libya by Italy without an assessment of their need for protection.

The 200 people are currently dispersed throughout several countries including Tunisia, Cyprus and Malta. Only one managed to return to Italy and was subsequently granted refugee status.

“Many have since fled and disappeared since the war in Libya,” said Lana, adding that all are entitled to return to Italy to seek asylum and receive each a €15,000 pay-out by the government following the court ruling.

France and Italy acted against 'spirit' of EU border laws

Both France and Italy acted within the law when they imposed measures against the thousands of Tunisian immigrants earlier this year, but they breached the "spirit" of the EU's freedom of movement agreement, the EU commission has said.

EUobserver under attack in wider battle for EU free press

If EU citizens want to know the truth, then journalists need protection from malicious litigation, as EUobserver joined the list of targets, over an article about the late Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Opinion

EU silence on sickening scenes at Croatian border

If the European Commission is seriously committed to its fundamental values, it is time to put words into practice and condemns unlawful returns and violence at its external borders and demands perpetrators of such illegal acts are held to account.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDANext generation Europe should be green and circular
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNEW REPORT: Eight in ten people are concerned about climate change
  3. UNESDAHow reducing sugar and calories in soft drinks makes the healthier choice the easy choice
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersGreen energy to power Nordic start after Covid-19
  5. European Sustainable Energy WeekThis year’s EU Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW) will be held digitally!
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic states are fighting to protect gender equality during corona crisis

Latest News

  1. Commission chief under fire for Croatia campaign video
  2. Parliament vaping booths 'too confidential' to discuss
  3. Belarus: Inside Lukashenko’s crackdown on independent voices
  4. The rationale behind US troop withdrawals from Germany
  5. Podcast: Nordic region speaks out on big global challenges
  6. Croatia re-elects PM amid corona downturn
  7. Budget talks shift gear This WEEK
  8. Cardinals speak out: EU needs corporate due diligence

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us